A Tree Hugger Turned Tree Hater

Determined to save his beloved Everglades, Chris Murch has become a melaleuca hit man

He leads the way along the levee, followed by the rest of the crew in Hemingway's Grand Marquis. About three miles west, the procession stops. The crew straps on leather holsters to hold the spray bottles, arms itself with chain saws and clippers, and ventures a quarter-mile into the swamp to a small stand of melaleucas.

From the levee 2B looks dry. But it isn't. The mud sucks at your water-filled boots, the sawgrass stings any exposed flesh. Disturbing the sludge brings up the rotten-egg smell of decaying vegetation. And there are unseen obstacles. On the way to a melaleuca stand, both high-school students fall into a gator hole, in which one often finds gators relaxing. The students, luckily, only find themselves slowly sinking in waist-deep mud. Kropke helps pull them out. "I didn't tell them it was a gator hole," he says. "If I had they would have started thrashing around and sunk further in."

Hemingway, who earned his nickname "Chain Saw" when he sliced open his left leg out in the swamp one Saturday, likes to tell the story of the Vietnam vet sent to ERM to work off probation time. The vet spent a few minutes conspicuously sharpening his bush knife on the levee, strapped on his gear, and marched about 125 feet into the swamp before doubling over from exhaustion and refusing to take another step. Hemingway helped him back to the levee and made him pick up trash for the rest of the day. "He talked a lot," says Hemingway, "but he couldn't do the walk."

Melaleucas love Florida, and they're hard to kill. They burn fast and hot, but their papery bark insulates the trunk from damage, and flames help spread the seeds. Saplings must be pulled out by their roots because even one stringy tendril left dangling anywhere near moisture will keep the tree alive. The recently introduced Australian snout beetle is their only natural enemy, but Thayer estimates it will take as many as five more insect species to pose any real threat to the trees.

Aerial applications of herbicide are effective -- several stands in Area 2B are almost completely dead from helicopter drops. But aerial spraying is a blunderbuss that leaves dead melaleucas standing and kills a lot of native vegetation. What's called for is a scalpel.

The procedure goes like this: Cut the tree down about 18 inches from the ground, spray the stump with herbicide, stack the deadwood behind you if it's small enough to lift, repeat ad infinitum. The stumps and fallen trees are left to rot.

ERM uses a herbicide called Arsenal, donated by the American Cyanamid Company. The chemical works by preventing photosynthesis from taking place in the severed trunk. Arsenal is safe for animals but deadly for plants. It has to be squirted carefully on the exposed trunk, lest it kill surrounding vegetation.

In about 45 minutes, Murch and Hemingway have cleared the first small stand of several dozen trees, leaving only a few scraggly-but-native holly trees standing. Native plants are quick to regenerate without the melaleuca, says Murch, and once the flora gets a hold, the fauna soon follows.

Objective two -- a melaleuca island dosed by air a few years ago -- is directly south. Here the crew is on mop-up, searching out trees that survived the earlier aerial assault. It takes the rest of the afternoon to scour the section, often trudging through tangles of dead trees and knee-deep muck to eliminate a single young melaleuca.

By 1 p.m. the crew is whipped. Perhaps 150 melaleucas have fallen. Murch is sweaty and sunburned, his white clothes are black from the knees down. He wants to continue, but his chain saw is dead and his soldiers are close to revolt. All good leaders know when to push and when to ease up, so he relents. Huffing back to the cars, Kropke is nearly swallowed by a sinkhole filled with gray ooze. At the levee Murch pops a beer and surveys the day's progress. "Looks great, doesn't it?" he asks. It's impossible to see any difference.

Last year the ERM got its first grant -- $500 from the Folke H. Peterson Foundation in Hollywood. The money went to buy clippers, boots, and other supplies. This year Murch has upped his request to $100,000. He thinks he might get $10,000. He'd settle for anything, because up to now money to keep going has all come out of members' own pockets. Murch has personally spent $7000, not to mention the time every Saturday away from his two young daughters. "If I thought about it too much, I'd get caught up in the paradigm of thinking it's impossible, and I'd never do it."

But the ERM has big plans. They're going to hit up Bill Gates -- the Bill Gates -- for a donation. They're putting five-gallon water jugs in area schools to collect "Pennies For the Glades." They're dreaming of an airboat or swamp buggy to help them reach melaleuca stands beyond marching distance.

That's the hazy future. For now there's nothing but chain saws and muck holes, rubber boots and melaleuca from horizon to horizon. In nine years the ERM has managed to clear half of the 500-acre parcel of 2B they want to finish by 2001. Two-hundred-and-fifty acres down, 29,750 to go.

"By the time I'm 100 or 150, we'll be done," says Murch.

Contact Bob Whitby at his e-mail address: Bob_Whitby@newtimesbpb.com

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